The heart...the symbol of love and affection (side note though, how did this 🫀 turn into this ❤️??). Such a powerful symbol stemming from one of the most important organs in the human body. Let's discuss what makes the heart so important in the first place.
The heart is like the Grand Central Station of the circulatory system, acting as the central hub for blood transport throughout the body. A perfectly designed organ with many arteries and valves constantly opening and closing to supply blood and the oxygen in said blood to the tissues that need it. Have you ever wondered how the heart miraculously beats?
Well, the heart contains two nodes known as the SA node and the AV node. These nodes work together to produce an electrical signal that cause the heart to "beat", similar to currents that cause nerve signals to transmit throughout the body. The best part: all of this happens without you even thinking about it! But enough about heart anatomy, time to get down to what happens when you don't treat your heart with proper nutrition and wellness: heart disease.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, killing roughly 700,000 people annually. But what exactly is heart disease? Heart disease is actually a combination of 5 different diseases: atherosclerosis, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, and heart failure.
Essentially, all of these conditions cause the heart to work harder than it needs to (narrowing of arteries from plaque build up, a hydration imbalance, or a heart attack caused by a blood clot). Certain negative lifestyle choices can particularly increase strain on the heart. If the poor lifestyle choices that caused this strain on the heart continue, it becomes too much for the heart to handle and results in full blown heart disease or worse. So what increases the risk of developing heart disease?
The major lifestyle risk factors include:
Lack of exercise
Poor diet (high in ultra-processed foods, saturated fat, and added sugar)
Excessive alcohol consumption
High LDL levels
(Source: Krause's Food and the Nutrition Care Process-Saunders, 2016)
There are certain risk factors that are more difficult to manage such as diabetes mellitus or older age (over 45 for men and over 55 for women), but all of the risk factors above can be managed with smart lifestyle choices. So then the question becomes: "How do I reduce my chances of getting heart disease?"
Don't smoke OR vape.
Exercise for at LEAST 30 minutes a day for 4 days per week. Strength or resistance training are great to have in your workout regimen, but improving your cardiovascular health through distance activities or HIIT training is best for heart health.
Consume a diet that contains ~80-90% whole, unprocessed foods and ~10-20% processed foods. We understand it is impossible to eat all whole foods which is why these percentages are recommended.
Eat lots of vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and fruit. These all help keep your arteries clear and healthy.
Practice mindfulness techniques like meditation or breathing exercises regularly to reduce stress.
Get 7-9 QUALITY hours of sleep each and every night. Invest in a fitness tracker to track your sleep, it's worth it.
Keep the alcohol consumption to 1-2 drinks per week. Preferably red wine.
Your heart does a lot for you, so return the favor. Give it the love and affection it deserves and it will continue doing its job efficiently for years and years to come.
Braeden Yacobucci, RDN/RD, LD, CF-OL1
Cara Barton, OTR/L. PN1, CF-L1
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, January 13). FASTSTATS - leading causes of death. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 17, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm
Mahan, L. K., Escott-Stump, S., & Raymond, J. L. (2016). Krause's Food & the Nutrition Care Process. Saunders.